The other day I was chatting with a friend who is a trainer at a high end chain gym in New York, and I told her about the awesome pilates class I took and how I’m putting yoga on the back burner for the time being in preparation for my capoeira graduation ceremony this upcoming week. I’ve been training a lot in preparation for the event; hopefully I get promoted to the next cord!

That aside, my friend told me about one of the higher tier trainers who has apparently written books on core training, and how he said something along the lines of how he doesn’t advocate having clients do yoga and pilates because it “totally deactivates the core”. I was utterly speechless; the only remotely plausible reason for him to say that would be to discourage his clients from taking those types of classes. Effectively, he was taking advantage of his clients’ lack of knowledge to get them to train more with him. From a business perspective this makes some sense, but I’d rather not have a client question my knowledge base or intentions when they find out that something their trainer said is completely wrong and closed-minded.

For one, pilates is meant to strengthen the “powerhouse”, which I’ve been taught is the musculature from the lower ribs down to and including the buttocks. There is so much core involvement in yoga I can’t even imagine trying to do some postures while having a lax core musculature. I’d like to see that trainer try a handstand while not keeping his core tight. That he said that yoga and pilates “deactivate the core” shows either a complete lack of understanding of the two disciplines or as mentioned above, a mindset which puts his business before the optimal knowledge and health of his clients.

I'd like to see that trainer try this without activating his core . . . - Image courtesy of wholeliving.com

I believe that every physical training system has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, I was doing a lot of yoga for a while and when I started doing more lifting, I found that I had gotten weaker on pull ups since there aren’t yoga movements that I know of which will stress your lats to that extent. You wouldn’t go to a pilates class to train for a powerlifting competition, just like you wouldn’t do sprints to train balance and body awareness. The holes in a training system can be patched by a different training system, leading to a more complete body of knowledge about how to get results most effectively. However, you have to be open minded enough to learn about something new, not just think that your methods are the be-all and end-all. I prefer to draw from a bunch of different disciplines, since it not only expands my knowledge base, it makes training fun for my clients since they’re not always doing the same thing. The more I know about different systems, the better equipped I am to find the optimal solution for what my clients want to do.

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I make it a habit to check in with my clients the day after we work out to see if there’s any kind of unusual pain. Not only does it help inform me how to adjust their workouts going forward, it also helps them develop the body awareness to identify when something hurts inappropriately. Most times when I first begin working with a client I’ll ask the question and get responses like, “umm, I feel okay” or “my shoulders are sore from the exercise we did”. I end up having to play twenty questions to get the information I need, but as I continue working with them their body awareness increases. Eventually I want to get my clients to understand the difference between dull/radiating sensation and sharp/localized sensation, as well as the difference between joint and muscle pain.

Pain always starts off with a mechanical stimulus, be it extreme temperature, tissue manipulations  (cutting, pinching, etc.), or impact. From there the specialized nerve endings which sense these stimuli send a message to the brain, and there it becomes a subjective experience.  Imagine two people getting pricked by a needle; assuming a similar number of nerve endings are affected, one person might find getting pricked incredibly painful, while another person might shrug it off as if it were a mosquito bite. This is what makes is difficult to normalize pain perception. The external stimulus might influence the same number of nerve endings between different people, but the brain’s perception of the stimulus will vary widely.

The reason it’s important to have enough body awareness to identify when there’s an acceptable amount of pain/sensation is that it gives a people a guideline to how hard they can push themselves. The best example I can think of this would be if you were in a yoga class. An instructor I like going to always said “dull sensation good, sharp sensation bad, no sensation, you’re wasting your time”. If you’re in a posture and you don’t feel anything, you might as well not be in the posture at all because you’re not pushing your body to the point where it will adapt. If you feel a sharp sensation, you probably went too far into the posture and potentially injured yourself. The dull sensation is where you’re feeling the muscle stretch with less potential for injury. When you can identify that edge where there’s as much dull sensation as you can handle without it changing into sharp pain, that’s when you’re doing a movement most effectively.

That's probably some sharp pain . . . - Image courtesy of http://www.soccerjones.com

How much body awareness do you have? Give it a thought next time you’re working out, it’ll be enlightening and help make your workouts more efficient.

Hey everyone! Apologies for the long break, now that summer is officially here I thought I’d write about workout tendencies in relation to summer. Everyone knows the drill, a few months before summer begins the gyms start to become packed with people wanting to get in shape so they won’t be embarrassed by their bathing suits. Guys start working on arms, abs, and chest, girls hit the cardio machines, and everyone starts dieting before beach season rolls around. Everyone’s out on display starting Memorial Day, so it makes sense people want to start working out for it!

The term “overtraining” refers to the condition where the intensity of an individual’s workout routine exceeds his or her recovery time, leading to stagnation in fitness levels and potentially a decrease in strength and fitness. With all the lifting going on going into summer, it’s easy for overtraining to happen. I’ve experienced this myself when I hit a strength plateau and no matter what I do I can’t seem to break through it. After taking a bit of time off I find that not only have I not lost any strength, I come back stronger than before. If you see the same dude in the gym doing bicep curls with the same amount of weight day in and day out without ever increasing it, either he’s not pushing himself or he’s overtrained.

“Detraining” refers to a loss in fitness due to a lack of training stimulus; in other words, it’s what happens to your body and your fitness level when you stop working out. The rate of detraining differs depending on the person’s original level of fitness, with fit athletes losing their speed, power, and strength gains more slowly than those who do not exercise consistently.  When the summer hits, it’s easy for people to get caught up in going to the beach/pool, having barbecues, and going to rooftop bars when the weather is nice. As the summer progresses though, those who completely stop working out will lose that prized physique they displayed proudly over Memorial Day. If this situation was an exercise infomercial, it’d be like the “after” picture doing the slow motion train wreck back to the “before” picture!

Erik Chopin from Biggest Loser, image courtesy of http://www.biggest-loser.org

There is some good news though, at least for your cardiovascular fitness. If you reduce your training frequency that was high prior to the start of summer, you can keep from detraining as quickly by maintaining a high level of intensity during your workouts even though they are less frequent. Since your cardiovascular fitness is near the same level as before, when you do work out, you can push yourself harder and maintain all the work you did leading up to the summer. Now get out there and show off your hard work!

So I’ve been doing a bunch of yoga lately to work on my goal, going to workshops by amazing teachers and working to deepen my practice. The cool thing about going to these workshops is that aside from the physical aspect of the practice, occasionally you might pick up a nugget of wisdom that resonates deeply with you. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a workshop held by Brock (www.gravitycowboy.com) and Krista (www.cahillyoga.com) Cahill and after the workshop he finished off by speaking a bit about the practice of yoga.

He said that someone in another workshop came up to him afterward and told him “I love it when the impossible becomes merely challenging”. As soon as I heard that it was like one of those Tibetan prayer gongs went off inside my head. When you first learn a movement, your head gets involved more than your body does, and you tend to overthink it. When you first learned to squat you were probably telling yourself “Is my chest up? Am I going far down enough? I think I need to sit back further. Man, this is so hard, are my knees going over my toes? Are they buckling in?” But as you practice more, the movement becomes ingrained in your muscle memory and you can progress to making the exercise/movement more difficult for yourself, be it through increased range of motion or additional resistance. All the questions you asked yourself when you started squatting go away, and the movement goes from being “so hard” to “merely challenging”.

With Brock & Krista Cahill post workshop

I’ve seen regulars in the yoga and pilates classes I go to who get stuck doing the same movements even though they’ve been coming to class for a long time. My theory is that these folks are stuck because when they practice, it’s not deliberate. They come to class hoping for someone to give them instructions and by just doing what someone else says they’ll achieve their fitness goals. You can roll through a class just going through the motions, or you can practice deliberately, meaning practicing in a way specifically designed to improve your movement or performance. This is the same concept that people who achieve world class status at something apply; when they practice whatever they do it’s consistent, regular, and focused. As a result, these people make progress so that eventually the impossible becomes merely challenging.

After stretching and experimenting I finally did a press handstand starting with my legs split yesterday! Not quite the full form of what I’m trying to accomplish yet, but definitely a step in the right direction! I’ll post again as I make more progress . . .

So how many of you are on track with your New Year’s fitness resolutions so far? I’m definitely making sure my clients keep accountable, and working on my own goals for the year. I recently saw a youtube video by someone demonstrating a yoga sequence, and it inspired me to work toward being able to do that sequence this year, particularly the first movement. Here’s the video:

The first move is called a press handstand, and it takes a massive amount of pure core strength in conjunction with balance and flexibility to do. Given where my body and strength levels are right now, I’m nowhere close to being able to do this, but instead of giving up on it I decided to figure out what I needed to do to be able to do a press handstand. For me, the first thing I need to do is loosen up my hamstrings so I can place my hands flat on the ground, and then I can start working on intermediate progressions to strengthen my core.

A good way to keep on your goal to fitness is to figure out your end goal, set a timeline for it, and then work backwards from there, creating little milestones for yourself. You may have heard of this type of goal setting as creating S.M.A.R.T. goals, which are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. “Getting in shape” is not a specific goal, nor is it measurable or timely. An example of a SMART goal would be “Lose 12% body fat within 6 months”. Depending on the person, this may or may not be realistic or attainable, but at least it’s specific and measurable, and numerically it works out well. So in order for this person to lose 2% body fat a month, what needs to be done? Diet change? Exercise more? Drink less? It’ll differ by person, but whatever combination of diet and exercise the person feels is realistic and will accomplish the goal is what needs to be done.

I’ll post again when I can finally do the press handstand, hopefully it won’t take me the full year to do it . . .

A new feature I had been thinking about for this blog was an interview series with instructors in different fields so readers can get acquainted with the discipline in case they’re not familiar with it, and to add value to readers by asking questions that people who aren’t associated with the discipline wouldn’t think about asking. Being that this is a new year, I figured now would be a good time to start. My first interview is with Alicia Doyle, founder of Rebel Pilates in San Francisco (http://www.rebelpilates.com/). She was the person who introduced me to pilates after I had an abdominal injury, and the way I think about core training hasn’t been the same since. Enjoy!

PG: How did you get your start doing pilates? Was there something about the discipline that attracted you to it over something else?

AD: I started doing classical Pilates as part of a dance program.  A lot of dancers did Pilates and yoga to supplement their training, and I’d already been practicing yoga for a few years before trying Pilates.  I had no idea what I was getting into, only that it was “good for your abs.”  Once I began taking regular Pilates mat classes, I wished I’d been doing it all along!  No workout has ever had such an amazing effect on my body.  I felt great and looked great.  My entire body became so much stronger, especially my core, and I was able to push my dancing even further.  One of the craziest changes was that my old injuries completely went away.  It was kind of magical how my body healed.

PG: In gym settings, pilates seems to be very female dominated. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s such a radical departure from lifting weights or guys consider it a “chick workout”, but what are your thoughts on it and what are the potential benefits of pilates for guys?

AD: It’s a huge misconception that Pilates is only for women.  A man invented it after all!  Men need Pilates, especially guys like you who are throwing big weights around.  Did you know Joseph Pilates was a body-builder and boxer?  This is no “chick workout.”  Pilates teaches you to coordinate your entire body to move from your core, rather than isolating individual muscles.  This can feel overwhelming at first if you’re used to only working out one muscle group at a time.  It involves complete control and extreme focus, but it’s worth the effort.  Imagine how much more effective you’d be if you could move weights from a strong center, not just your limbs.  And with improved alignment and body awareness, you’re way less likely to get injured.  Not to mention the benefits of stretching! In the past few years, I’ve actually noticed an increasing number of men are doing Pilates.  It’s already popular with many professional male athletes and celebrities, and I think men in general are realizing the need to not merely have a body that looks good, but to have one that functions at the best level possible.  You might be surprised to hear that half my current clients are men!

PG: I often use exercise as stress release, because the feeling of exhausting yourself throwing weights around helps me get back to a more regular mental state. Can you explain how your body and mind interact through pilates? For example, if you’re having a crappy day, does pilates help you relieve stress well since there’s so much focus on control and precision?

AD: There’s a huge interaction between mind and body during a Pilates workout because you’re constantly using your mind to control the movement of your body.  Pilates exercises aren’t meant to fatigue your muscles or push them to the point of failure, but rather to awaken every single muscle cell in your body.  This of course takes a great deal of mental power.  For me, Pilates is a huge stress release because there’s no time to think about anything else.  I can take my focus completely into the movement. But, there’s actually more to it than that.  Pilates is much more than a game of Simon Says between mind and body.  There’s a lot going on internally on a more cellular level as a result of the movement, breath, and circulation involved in the exercises.  Doing classical Pilates leaves you with an uplifted feeling.  As Joseph Pilates said, it “restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit.”

PG: When you’re doing pilates, what’s going through your head? How do you get your mind into your workout whenever you practice? Is there a noticeable difference in the effectiveness of your workout when you’re thinking about something else compared to when you’re thinking only about what you’re doing?

Isn’t any workout more effective when you’re focused on it 100%?  One of the aspects of Pilates that I love most is that there’s always a way to further challenge myself physically by deepening my focus.  I’ll admit there are times when I feel unmotivated to work out, and I know in part it’s because there is so much mental energy needed.  After a long day, it sometimes seems easier to just veg out and watch Hulu.  But, I’ve found that if I simply push myself to begin moving through the exercises, my mind quickly catches up and I’m able to not only get through the workout, but to enjoy it too! Maintaining focus is essential to truly benefitting from any workout.  (You even wrote a post about this yourself! (https://physicalgateway.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/maintaining-focus/).  When it comes to Pilates, the ability to concentrate is particularly vital.  After all, Pilates was originally called Contrology, the art of control.  So, if there is no control, no concentration, and no thought going into the workout, then it’s not really Pilates, is it?

If you’re ever out in San Francisco, definitely look her up!

Alicia and I in San Francisco

Happy new year everyone! It’s that time of year again, time for folks to make resolutions about their health, and as a result, time for gyms to get packed like crazy. Lots of people, myself included, set an intention or resolution for the new year that goes something like, “This year I’m finally gonna get into good shape, start eating right, hit the gym, and be healthier so I can take my body to the next level!” But gyms usually start to quiet down within 6 weeks of the new year, so what happened to all these intentions and resolutions??

New York got slammed with a blizzard the day after Christmas to the point where I was trudging around in my timberlands for 3 days straight trying to walk through the snow. The first night though, I told myself I needed to go to the gym to start working off all the holiday food I’d been eating. I walk outside and this is what I see:

NYC Blizzard 2010 - Image courtesy of markosun.wordpress.com

I could have turned right around and gotten back into my warm apartment, but I started trudging through the snow, flakes pelting my face and wind threatening to break my umbrella. Then I see a bright flash followed by a thunderous rumble, at which point I swore I was on some other planet and hustled my way over to the gym.

The concept of resolutions are great; they allow people to vocalize and conceptually solidify the changes that they’d like to make happen and the more people they tell about their resolutions, the more people are available to hold them accountable to those goals. However, only a select few manage to stick to those resolutions, with all the others falling by the wayside at the first sign of difficulty or a roadblock. I strongly believe that the reason for so many people failing at their new year’s resolutions is that the end goal is clear, but the path there is not.

The success of a resolution is determined by the culmination of all the small choices along the way. The more choices you make which put you in line with your resolution, the more likely it is you’ll succeed. For example, I could have turned right around when I saw the blizzard outside and sat at home, telling myself “I’ll just go to the gym tomorrow”. But I didn’t, and I had a great workout in a peaceful gym since not many people wanted to brave the snow the day after Christmas.  Meals are another opportunity to make a small choice which will either put you on track toward your goals or nudge you away from them. Will you eat that second dessert or have that 5th glass of wine even though you’re full/drunk, or will you be content with being satisfied? Those who fail at their resolutions keep making small choices which lead them away from their goals, and those who succeed do so through the aggregation of their small choices to be healthy.

Treat each roadblock as an opportunity to make a choice about your health and well-being, and once you realize that it’s within your power to make these small choices, the larger goals become more clear and less daunting.

Wishing you a happy and healthy start to 2011!